What is paradox and why is it relevant for leaders and organisations today?
Leaders of organisations increasingly deal with competing demands where they have to choose between seemingly contradictory choices. The tendency for many decision-makers is to select a single option that offers the optimal path forward, known as an ‘either/or’ approach. However, research shows that employing a ‘both/and’ approach to decision-making often leads to better outcomes. In the academic literature, competing priorities are referred to as paradoxes or paradoxical tensions. Identifying and successfully navigating paradox is a key feature of successful leaders.
In practice, a paradoxical tension is different from a simple ‘either-or’ choice, and paradoxical decisions are more complex.
Examples of paradoxical tensions can be observed across all organisational levels and industries. For example, deciding between investing in innovative products or processes versus leveraging an existing successful product; between expanding into global markets versus addressing distinct local needs; between responding rapidly to a short term need versus carefully evaluating options to generate quality longer term solutions. Other examples of these competing tensions include long versus short term priorities, standardisation versus flexibility, efficiency versus effectiveness, change versus stability.
Responding to a paradoxical tension can involve complex decision-making.
There may be a range of alternative approaches, each may be desirable and come with benefits for the organisation. The decision is not black and white, the choice is not ‘either-or’. However, the human brain prefers clarity, and for many decision-makers the tendency is to select a single option that offers the optimal path forward. Making a clear ‘either/or’ choice between Option A or Option B provides a sense of temporary relief, but can be limiting and potentially even detrimental in the long term. For example, in the tension between ensuring adequate control versus allowing flexibility, we can recognise that while some level of control is desirable to identify errors and take corrective action, too much control can lead to rigidity. Conversely, flexibility and spontaneity can help individuals and teams to flourish, but too much flexibility can lead to chaos.
In order to survive and to thrive, organisations must learn how to effectively navigate these competing tensions and adopt a ‘both-and’ approach to manage them. Our Paradox team can help decision-makers distinguish between decisions involving paradoxical tensions, and normal (frequently binary) business-as-usual decisions. We can also help you develop and implement evidence-based strategies to navigate these tensions.
Find out more about paradox
This freely downloadable two-page factsheet, Navigating competing and persisting tensions for present and future success, provides more information on real-world paradox. Download it to kick-start a conversation about paradox with your team today.